Preventing Distracted Driving
Eating and Drinking While Driving Can Be Distracting

The Dangers of Eating & Drinking Behind The Wheel - Preventing Distracted Driving

Updated Dec. 16, 2020

Have a quick glance at the drivers around you next time you are stopped in traffic; there is a strong chance you will see somebody eating or drinking behind the wheel. The prevalence of drive-through fast-food restaurants and our increasingly busy lifestyles mean that more and more American motorists are eating meals, snacking or drinking beverages while driving.

When “everybody” does something, we tend to assume that it is safe. This could not be further from the truth when it comes to eating and driving. We’re not just talking about eating a full meal (though this would be particularly dangerous), as even reaching over to the passenger’s seat to grab a handful of chips or taking a sip from a coffee cup can significantly increase your chances of being involved in a traffic accident.

It is impossible to eat or drink without taking at least one hand off the steering wheel – this is a time in which you will not be in complete control of your vehicle. To make matters worse, you will almost certainly have to take your eyes off the road. This may only be for a moment but remember that a moment is long enough to cause a collision.

The dangers of eating behind the wheel

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a driver who is distracted by eating or drinking from an open container is 39 percent more likely to experience a collision or near-miss collision than an attentive driver. This is a significant increase in risk. Eating while driving is extremely dangerous, as it prevents you from being completely engaged with the driving task. You may miss vital events on the roadway while your gaze is averted or lose control of your vehicle while your hands are off the wheel. There are other dangers to consider too:

  1. 1

    Eating or drinking while driving is difficult.
    You may spill food if you hit a bump or porthole, or even just because of the movement of the vehicle. The surprise caused by an unexpected spillage could lead you to lose control of the car.

  2. 2

    You could hurt yourself.
    Spilling hot coffee or burning your mouth with hot food would seriously distract you and could result in an accident.

  3. 3

    As you will be eating in a rushed manner in a moving vehicle, your chances of choking will be greater than they are when eating under normal circumstances.

  4. 4

    Eating something spicy or heavily flavored could lead to sweating, sneezing or coughing.
    This would make it harder to focus on the road.

  5. 5

    Greasy food like fries, chicken and other fast food options could affect your control of the vehicle by making your hands slippery.

It is important to remember that consuming any food or drink behind the wheel is dangerous. Even taking a sip of coffee or soda will temporarily obscure your view of the road as you lift the cup or can to your lips!

Taking your hands off the wheel

You cannot eat comfortably in the driver’s seat as, unsurprisingly, it is not designed to be a dining area. Some motorists try to make their lives easier by placing food in their lap while driving, but this will only add to the distraction you are experiencing. You will be aware that there is something in your lap you are trying not to spill and will not be sitting naturally – or controlling the vehicle properly - as a result.

Consuming food with utensils while driving is especially dangerous, as it will likely amount to more time with your hands off the steering wheel. Do not take this to mean that eating hand-held food is safe, as any time without both hands firmly on the wheel is time in which you will not be able to turn or avoid a collision if something unexpected happens on the roadway.

Loss of focus

Driving is a complex and difficult enough task without adding the various other physical and mental tasks associated with eating or drinking into the equation. We generally do not notice these food and drink-related tasks when we eat in other situations, as they are not particularly strenuous on their own. Though, remember that ANY unnecessary task - however small - will add to the mental load you are dealing with while driving. Something as simple as unscrewing a bottle cap, unwrapping food or trying to hold a sandwich together could cause you to overlook something important about the roadway environment.

How to avoid eating while driving

Plan ahead to avoid eating on the road. You may even find you make healthier choices and enjoy your meals more by doing this! Let’s face it, nobody can really savor what they are eating if they are driving at the same time. Try to allow yourself a little extra time for a journey so that if you do get hungry on your travels, you can pull over or sit down in a restaurant to eat, rather than eating behind the wheel. If you have food in your car with you, avoid the temptation to snack while the car is in motion by keeping everything out of arm’s reach in the trunk or the back seat.

Penalties for eating while driving

At present, eating or drinking non-alcoholic beverages while driving is not prohibited as a primary law anywhere in the United States. However, this does not mean that you cannot be pulled over and cited by a traffic cop for eating behind the wheel. In several states, including Washington, motorists may be cited for eating or drinking while driving under a secondary law. This means that if a law enforcement officer spots you committing a primary violation while ALSO eating (for instance, running a red light or passing dangerously), they may stop you and cite you for BOTH offenses.

Do not assume that you’re safe from being ticketed if you live in a state where eating and drinking is not yet prohibited under a secondary law. In all states, police officers have the power to pull you over and issue you a ticket for dangerous or reckless driving. This would include eating while driving if they believed it impeded your ability to control the vehicle. The best way to stay on the right side of the law and avoid a ticket is not to eat or drink behind the wheel at all.

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